RN&R File Photo U.S. Rep. James Gibbons presided over a congressional hearing on offshore drilling.

U.S. Rep. James Gibbons of Nevada is calling for offshore drilling in California and other states. He made his comments as the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously against such drilling and as a federal judge blocked extensions of oil and gas drilling leases off the California coast.

Gibbons, long allied with the mining industry, chaired a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing in Port Fourchon, La., over the weekend in an effort to promote drilling. Various politicians are trying to hand over new oil drilling powers to Louisiana. George Bush is pushing a plan that would give control of drilling in Florida waters to Louisiana, Alabama and oil companies. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, proposed legislation to abolish bans on drilling in Florida waters by changing the boundary between Florida (which bans drilling) and Louisiana (which does not).

The Bush plan prompted the Palm Beach Post to comment, “For Florida, where tourism still drives the state’s economy, the risk of damage to beaches from drilling or tanker mishaps remains unacceptable.” This stance that oil drilling is a threat to Florida tourism is analogous to Gibbons’ position that Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage would threaten Nevada tourism.

But Gibbons has a long history of supporting drilling and no record of opposing it, so his position at the Port Fourchon hearing wasn’t surprising.

At an earlier hearing in June, Gibbons had described the United States as the “Saudi Arabia of oil shale.” (It’s a popular analogy. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid considers Nevada the Saudi Arabia of solar power. U.S. Sen. Norman Coleman of Minnesota calls his state the Saudi Arabia of renewable fuels. U.S. Sen. George Allen of Virginia says he comes from the Saudi Arabia of coal. Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns says Nebraska is the Saudi Arabia of wind.)

In August 2001, Gibbons voted against banning oil drilling from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

On April 13 this year, in voting in the House Energy Committee to open the refuge to drilling, Gibbons said, “If we are going to improve the security of this country, we have to become less dependent on foreign sources of oil.”

“Inflexible environmental policies force tens of thousands of American jobs overseas while doing very little to protect the environment worldwide. … Exploration and drilling in ANWR will increase domestic production by nearly 20 percent by the year 2025 and add an estimated 2.2 million jobs to the nation’s work force,” Gibbons asserted at a May hearing in Henderson.

While Gibbons’ position on drilling wasn’t a surprise at the Port Fourchon hearing, his handling of that hearing was. The hearing topic wasn’t entirely clear from advance materials, except that it was intended to portray drilling in a positive light—the title Gibbons gave the hearing was “The Benefits of Offshore Oil and Natural Gas Development.”

In advance of the hearing, Gibbons issued a statement: “Great energy resources can be found offshore, and improved technology enables us to tap these vast oil and gas resources in an environmentally safe manner. As oil and natural gas prices continue to rise, we need to broaden our domestic energy production by tapping offshore resources to help meet our continually increasing energy demands.”

Louisianans took the vagueness about the hearing topic as license to discuss anything involving drilling. There was little news coverage, but one Associated Press report was published from Massachusetts to Nevada. It suggested that Gibbons got the information he needed early in the hearing after listening to witnesses representing one viewpoint: “After the first five people spoke about Louisiana’s fight to keep from washing into the Gulf of Mexico, and its contribution to the nation’s energy supply, the head of a House Energy subcommittee said he had no questions for them.”

Gibbons told the witnesses, “You’ve painted a picture so clear and so vivid that not many questions need to be asked.”

In the course of the hearing, witnesses testified on oil production, the revenues that coastal states get from oil drilling compared to inland states, and the restoration of beaches damaged by drilling. Before the hearing, U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said he was hoping to use the session to expose members of Congress to the problems of coastal erosion.

However, in May 2000, Gibbons voted against coastal conservation efforts in states affected by offshore drilling.

In the recently enacted omnibus energy bill, Congress provided $540 million for Louisiana coastal restoration—about $13.5 billion less than the amount the state estimates the job will take.

Landrieu sent Gibbons a letter saying she hoped he would be sensitive to the need of oil producing states for coastal repair over non-producing states. “States that are producing today, like Louisiana and our immediate neighbors on the Gulf Coast, deserve significant coastal impact assistance based on our past contributions, regardless of what decisions are made concerning Florida, Virginia or any other states.”

Two days after Gibbons’ hearing in Port Fourchon and after he called for increased offshore drilling in California and other states, the San Francisco Chronicle editorialized that most of the state is prepared to mobilize to block offshore drilling plans.

“If a list of dumb ideas for California were ever engraved in granite, offshore oil drilling would go near the top. Neither Republican nor Democratic leaders want to see derricks dotting the coast. There isn’t much oil out there. State agencies, local leaders and environmental groups are ready to rumble at the first sign of a drill bit. The topic is a complete nonstarter for public decision-makers and the average California resident.”

Governors in Great Lakes states are taking similar stances.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...